After establishing his reputation as a playwright, Martin McDonagh made a remarkably confident movie debut in 2004 directing the Oscar-winning, half-hour Six Shooter, set on a train in his native Ireland, where grieving widower Brendan Gleeson is confronted by a gun-toting psychopath. He followed it up in 2008 with his first feature, the dazzling, accomplished In Bruges, a conscious cross between Hemingway's The Killers and Beckett's Waiting for Godot in which Gleeson and Colin Farrell play Irish hitmen waiting for their psychopathic British boss to dictate their next assignment. Now McDonagh has moved to the States, where his hero, Colin Farrell, is Marty, an incipient alcoholic Irish playwright working on a Hollywood film, and the number of psychopaths involved has exponentially advanced to seven.
At the opening of the startling and funny Seven Psychopaths the camera pans across the hills above Los Angeles, taking in the iconic sign that has loomed over the city since 1923, first as HOLLYWOODLAND and more recently simply HOLLYWOOD. Very soon we realise that this film is not merely set in LA, it's about Hollywood as a place, an industry, a creator and shaper of dreams and narratives, a distorter and destroyer of lives. To complete a circle the film ends with a comic variation on the final lines of John Ford's The Searchers about returning home after the completion of a journey.
The first scene is a long take on what appears to be the road on top of a dam, where two young hitmen are waiting for their next victim as they discuss their profession in colourful Tarantinoesque terms, wondering whether John Dillinger and The Godfather's Moe Greene are equally real. Unknown to them but very obvious to us, a sinister masked figure is coming from behind to kill them both and leave behind calling cards announcing the assassin as the Jack of Diamonds Killer. This is life imitating art, soon to be followed by art attempting to imitate life in a city where the two are virtually inseparable.
Farrell's Marty has a problem. He has a title for a film he must write – Seven Psychopaths – but no plot to go with it. This is not uncommon in Hollywood: Rebel Without a Cause and Sex and the Single Girl were based on books acquired for their catchy titles for which gifted writers (in the case of Sex and the Single Girl Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22) were engaged to confect screenplays. So he must meet some genuine psychopaths, ie people who behave aggressively and commit violent acts with no sense of guilt or remorse, a description that might fit a large proportion of people in southern California at large and the movie business in particular.
Marty's mercurial friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an actor turned dog thief, undertakes to assist Marty's quest. He introduces him to Hans (Christopher Walken), his slightly older colleague in the dog-snatching business, and advertises for eloquent psychopaths to share their experiences. One of the latter recruits is Zachariah (the hoarse-voiced Tom Waits) who hilariously describes his life travelling around America with his black lover killing notorious serial killers in appropriate styles. All he wants in return is that Billy's script should have a message inviting his ex-accomplice to rejoin him.
Meanwhile both the fast-talking, unreliable Billy and the slow-speaking, quietly menacing Hans feed ideas to Marty, little vignettes about revenge-seeking psychos of the sort that fascinate Tarantino. Prominent among them are the tales of a Quaker preacher (rivetingly impersonated by a silent Harry Dean Stanton) and a Vietnamese priest, who may be either a survivor of the My Lai massacre or a self-immolating Buddhist priest.
The stories are enacted on screen in the minds of Marty, Billy and Hans, recalling such films of the 1960s as Alain Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express and Agnès Varda's Les créatures, where what we see are the books the central characters are writing, rewriting and tinkering with.
Supposed reality and fiction come together in the terrifying form of the gangster Charlie Costello, played by a demonically grinning Woody Harrelson. In real life Harrelson is the son of a hired killer and has, like Walken, form with Tarantino. He played one of theNatural Born Killers in the movie written by Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone. Billy and Hans have committed the unforgivable crime of kidnapping Bonny, Costello's pet shih tzu, which carries around its neck an identity disc that reads as memorably, if somewhat more brutally, as the epigram Alexander Pope wrote to hang on the collar of Frederick, Prince of Wales's dog ("I am his Highness' dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?"): "Return to Charles Costello or you will fucking die." He kills without compunction and supposedly brings in the authentic criminal underworld. But as we know to be the case with real-life professionals, Costello has a strong sense of being on stage, of acting out a role, and while guilt may be unknown to him he's worried about bad reviews of his performance.
There are odd moments in Seven Psychopaths when Marty's understandable exasperation becomes tedious and repetitive. But mostly the ruthless black humour is sustained, and occasionally some genuine emotion can creep in and touch our hearts. Especially well contrived are the climactic scenes in the desert of the Joshua Tree National Park, east of Los Angeles, where Billy and Hans, as self-appointed collaborators, drag a reluctant Marty, tempting him into the wilderness. They've decided that this should be the setting for the necessary shoot-out required to complete the narrative of Marty's screenplay and their own lives. Of the work they're creating, Walken's Hans solemnly declares: "I like it, it's got layers." He's a professional dog thief who talks like a Hollywood producer, and like so many of us he's constructing and describing the film that is his life.
Seven Psychopaths2012 109 minutes Rated R
Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths is something of a miracle. It works both as a straight-ahead crime dramedy while also serving as a piercing satire of said genre. It is a delightfully funny and clever romp in the land of violent criminals as well as a post-modern commentary on both the cliches of the format and the very fact that we not only embrace such characterizations but hold them on a higher platform in terms of critical acclaim and prestige. At its basest level, McDonagh's film aims to take every wanna-be hip gangster saga that has emerged 18 years after Pulp Fiction and slap them all silly. But while the meta-moments and occasionally outlandish violence may stand out, it's the commitment to its own reality and acknowledging the tragedy of its own blood-soaked tale that makes the film linger, and makes it a genuine work of brilliance. This is simply one of my favorite films of the year and one of the year's happiest surprises.
The story, such as it were, technically revolves around Marty (Collin Farrell), a struggling alcoholic screenwriter who gets involved with his friend Billy's (Sam Rockwell) scheme to abduct dogs in order to claim the reward money. Complications ensue when Rockwell and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) nab the prized pooch of Charlie, a local crime boss (Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile, Marty finds himself struggling to write what he hopes is his next great script, a brutally surreal crime story theoretically involving seven colorful psychopaths. What begins as a film akin to the likes of Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead and/or Two Days in the Valley (or the early Guy Ritchie films) soon becomes something deeper and altogether richer. I'm going to be vague here, as I knew very little going into this film, but what transpires becomes something akin to Cabin in the Woods meets Wes Craven's New Nightmare set in a Pulp Fiction sandbox. But no matter how self-referential the narrative gets or however self-critical the dialogue becomes (I'm personally partial to a discussion about paper-thin female characters), McDonagh never lets us forget that for the characters involved, this is real life with sometimes horrible consequences (there is at least one death that is out-and-out heartbreaking).
Intentional or not, I was also struck by the sheer number of females of color in this cast. Yes, most of the female characters "can't string a sentence together," but considering how many genre films are lucky to have two females period, it's worth noting that we see quite a few women-of-color in this gangland story. Of these, Linda Bright Clay shines brightest as Christopher Walken's cancer-stricken wife. Speaking of which, Chris Walken delivers what is arguably his best performance since Catch Me If You Can (not that I don't love his turns in The Rundown, Hairspray, or the criminally underrated Balls of Fury) and what I would argue is one of his finest performances, period. In a film full of bloodthirsty well, psychopaths, Walken is refreshingly cast as one of the least outwardly crazy characters in the film and the closest thing the film has to a heart-and-soul. It's a perfect mix of Walken-doing-Walken shtick and a genuine dramatic performance, using his patented verbal gymnastics to mask a sad old man filled with regret but too wise to spend his final days wallowing in self-pity. In a more high-profile film, Walken would be a lock for an Oscar nomination.
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, with Sam Rockwell standing out as the most colorful character of the bunch. As the proverbial loose cannon of the group, Rockwell represents the audience, the ones who root for great drama at the expense of the characters with whom we're supposed to be invested. The violence is often over-the-top and the picture all-but asks us point-blank "Why are you enjoying this?". Like the best genre deconstructions (see the above references, plus offhand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Scream 2), Seven Psychopaths works as both as a commentary on its genre as well as a rhetorical argument directed at those who would take said pictures as 'fun' or 'popcorn entertainment.' But like those modern classics, Seven Psychopaths is also a sterling example of the very thing it purports to deconstruct. There is no reason to spoil the many surprises and unexpected pleasures, to say nothing of the profundities contained in this gem of a picture. So, I will quit before I spoil too much and only say that Seven Psychopaths is one of the best films of 2012 and contains one of the finest performances of Christopher Walken's career. If that sentence doesn't get you into the theater, nothing will.
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